‘I love you Big Brother’: A Review of 1984 (film)

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If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.’ – George Orwell, 1949.

I’ve been wanting to write this for a long, long time now. Ever since I’d written my review on George Lucas’ THX 1138, Michael Radford’s interpretation of 1984 has been on my mind (especially after the passing of the beloved John Hurt). I have mentioned in many reviews and essays how George Orwell’s words have inspired my words and guided my voice, and this is something that is important to the cyberpunk lexicon.

1984 is not overtly cyberpunk. There are no hackers. There are no cyborgs or androids. And there are no heroes or anti-heroes. But Orwell has imparted key themes that are relevant to cyberpunk, and that is the feeling of alienation. The coldness and darkness of the sprawling city. The sterility of a heavily controlled population. And the dire warning of a future government that regulates free thought and the spread of information. These are key elements of integral cyberpunk texts such as Neuromancer and The Diamond Age and is something that we should continue if we are to further understand our modern world.

‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’

A quick side note: I’ve chosen to review Radford’s interpretation of Orwell’s novel because of the time in which it was filmed (oddly enough, during nineteen eighty-four). I will obviously be comparing this to the novel and reviewing based on atmosphere and depiction of Orwell’s dystopia. The plot is as follows (for those of us that haven’t read it in high school!):

‘A man loses his identity while living under a repressive regime. In a story based on George Orwell’s classic novel, Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a government employee whose job involves the rewriting of history in a manner that casts his fictional country’s leaders in a charitable light. His trysts with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) provide his only measure of enjoyment, but lawmakers frown on the relationship—and in this closely monitored society, there is no escape from Big Brother.’

Like THX 1138, 1984 follows this tragi-romance in a barren, dystopic world whereby such emotion is considered volatile. The only love that is tolerated is love for the party, Big Brother—the omniscient and omnipresent party leader. I mentioned in my THX 1138 review that such plots worry me, but that is not because I dislike them. It’s because I compare them to Orwell’s, and want more of it. There is no real love in his world, but the inherent yearning for the smell and taste of another human. The touch, the needs and the flesh of another being. The voice, the soul and longing for another kindred soul in a doomed land of the slaves.

This is perhaps the purest form of any 1984 interpretation I have come across thus far. The setting is eerie and almost appears as if it was ripped from the pages of the novel. You can feel the cracking of the plaster as Winston touches the walls in his hovel. You can smell the acidic air in which he and Julia breathe in as they make love in the woods. The mise en scène is wonderful and carries so many allusions to power, insignificance and futility that excites me even as I think about it.

The senses go into overdrive as the audience member watches the film as it’s so evocative. I enjoy my dreary ambiance, and Radford’s film punches you in the gut, pulls your hair and forces you to absorb the ugliness of a true dystopic masterpiece.

‘Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.’

I must admit, I own a physical copy of the MGM DVD release (2003) which does not feature the Eurythmics new-wave, synth-pop score. You can buy it here, and if you are to buy the blu-ray release, you can watch the film with or without it. Having only just listened to it, I can say that I’m pleased to have watched the film without it. While I love the Eurythmics, Dominic Muldowney’s score is truly wonderful with its mix of creepy, sorrowful, and anguished tunes sprinkled with flecks of a distant hope. I can listen to the score for hours (and you can purchase it here, the main title is magnificent).

The strongest thing about the film is perhaps the acting. It was perhaps the greatest idea to use John Hurt to play Winston Smith for he resembles the frail and meager protagonist so well. There is love in this portrayal of Winston, so much that I could feel the pain as he is tortured in Room 101. Richard Burton as the duplicitous O’Brien was another wonderful choice for he portrayed him the way Orwell intended. Cold, manipulating, calculating and ironically warm, Burton could convince anyone to love Big Brother.

Whilst I love this film very dearly, there are some issues with this interpretation. Any depiction of Orwell’s works runs into the problem of being unable to do his words justice. There is a bleakness to his writing that is impossible to replicate on the screen. Radford’s 1984 is still miserable, but at times lacks the punch the text truly deserves.

‘“We’re not dead yet,” said Julia prosaically.’

Some sequences are also oddly shot, such as the dreamlike sequences (which I didn’t mind so much, but felt out of place) to the initial love-making scene between Winston and Julia. And because the film is generally shot well, these flaws really stand out. Having said that, subsequent sexual scenes are shot decently, especially the one during the reading of Emmanuel Goldstein’s text (though brief, it is used well).

But these are minor squabbles amid a lovely film, though unfortunately like THX 1138, it is a difficult sit. To watch real dystopic films, one must tread through the heart of a wickedness that resides in all beings. To face it head on is at times a burden. Especially as our world comes to closely resemble a motley vision of Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

This is a definite recommendation, and if you haven’t watched it yet I suggest you do so, now! You can get a copy here.

1984 – 8/10

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